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The Commandaria that we drink today

In 18th-century Cyprus, when the thick must stopped fermenting in the jars, the new wine was either carried in wineskins to the merchants’ warehouses, or was left in jars in the area it was produced and transported a year later. If the wine came from that year’s vintage, the merchants initially stored it in jars similar to those used for fermentation and put it into barrels a year later. But if the producer had already kept the wine in jars for a year, the merchants put it directly into barrels. (1) The ports The merchants’ warehouses were concentrated in Larnaca, one of the two seaports of Nicosia. This was the most infertile part of the island, but, as it had a salt marsh on the coast that was not exposed to the wind, ships from Europe used to go to harbor there. The area was called Salina because of the salt pans. Large quantities of salt were exported from its port. And so, Larnaca, which was not the center of a vine-growing area, became a major wine-trading center, a city of wine, to which all the wine of the hinterland was brought for storage and sale. Remember Porto The trading center for the best-known sweet wine today is the harbor of Porto, where all the merchants’ warehouses are located and which is the final destination for all the wine from the Douro Valley, where the vineyards are and the wine is made. The wine is brought to the warehouses in the port where alcohol is added to stop fermentation, then it is left to mature, before being loaded onto ships and taken to foreign markets. Larnaca was the port known to foreigners, who did not know the hinterland. The fortress town of Movemvasia-Malvasia was also a commercial port where wine made in the hinterland was loaded. A point that has been made in this column before, is that in the days when wine was transported by sea, the wine trade only knew the ports. Therefore, the large wine-producing centers developed in coastal areas of the Mediterranean, and later alongside navigable rivers. In Venice and Leghorn The wine trade of Cyrus was in foreign hands. In the 18th century, most of the Commandaria wine was still being sold by the Venetians, who used to transport the wine to Venice and Leghorn. The wine that went to Venice was already one year old and was cheaper, while the wine that went to Leghorn was more expensive but had better organoleptic features. In Venice, they used to process the wines so that they matured faster and could be sold at higher prices. But there were also Commanderie wines that were exported to France, England, the Netherlands and Tuscany. These markets were supplied with Commandaria directly from Cyprus for five to six years, according to Mariti. As we have noted before, the charm of sweet wines derives from the bouquet they acquire as they age. As time went by, most of the sweet wines from the eastern Mediterranean faded away or just barely managed to linger on because, as we have said before, they were delicate and did not stand up well to sea voyages. The American War of Independence gave a huge boost to the fame of sweet wines which were sold in Atlantic markets, like Port and Madeira, where ships called in on their way to the Southern Hemisphere. In those harbors, the new «crusaders» and daring seafarers of that age found liqueur wines, namely wines that had been stabilized by the addition of alcohol. The revival The sweet wine of Cyprus never went out of production, but Commandaria was legally revived in 1974 by a law recognizing the name Commandaria as a Controlled Appellation of Origin, and stipulating the production methods of wines entitled to the name. This law specified the vine-growing areas of Paphos and Limassol as those where grapes used to make Commandaria must be grown. To a large extent, these areas coincide with the villages that formed the Knights’ fiefdom, the Commanderie. The vines grow low on the ground in a beehive shape – according to Mariti, the grapes touched the ground. The vines are pruned severely and not watered. Any cultivation method that was not in traditional use is prohibited. Due to the condition of the soil, the vines are thinly planted – 170 vines per 0.10 hectares, with a low yield per hectare: 450 kilos of grapes or 170 liters of sweet wine. Commandaria is made from two grape varieties. One of them has white grapes and is called Xynisteri; it is the national grape of Cyprus. Its grapes are considered ripe when their juice contains at least 210 grams of sugar per liter (11.6 on the Baumé scale). The other variety has red grapes called Mavro. When the grapes are ripe, they contain 260 grams of sugar per liter (14.5 Baume). The beginning of the grape harvest in each area is determined by the Council for Viticultural Products, so that the grapes have at least the minimum legal sugar content. When they are sun-dried, the grapes must be semi-dried and their juice has to become concentrated, but not so much that the yeasts cannot multiply and ferment the sugars. For this reason, Cypriot law sets two limits: The must of the sun-dried grapes has to contain more than 390 grams of sugar per liter (at least 20.5 Baumé) but not more than 450 gr/l (at least 23 Baume). Must of such density produces sweet wines containing 150-280 grams of unfermented sugar. Their alcohol content is as much as 15-16 percent in the former case and 10 percent in the latter. Commandaria is a genuine offspring of the sweet wines of the East, as they were made from antiquity through the 19th century, and as they are still made in small quantities. But when very sweet wines are low in alcohol, they are considered old-fashioned by modern palates. For this reason, Cypriot legislation, in line with contemporary trends and the relevant European Union legislation, allows the addition of alcohol, so that the Commandaria which comes onto the market is 15-18 percent alcohol, which both makes it seem less sweet to the taste and ensures better stabilization. Before it is sold as Commandaria, the wine from sun-dried grapes must have aged for at least two years in oak barrels. So, Commandaria is made in the traditional fashion of wines from sun-dried grapes, but is stabilized in the manner of contemporary liqueur wines, and the name liqueur wine appears on the label. This entails respect for tradition without being hidebound. 1. Giovanni Mariti, Wines of Cyprus, Nicolas Books, Athens 1984 (First ed. 1772 in Italian).